“I’m not trying to be mean, but….” When someone begins with these words, you know to expect something monumentally cruel to follow (“I’m not trying to be mean, but I’ve never really considered you an intelligent person”). The speaker, by beginning this way, intends to signal that their motivations aren’t sinister, but rather that they’re just trying to be honest, or maybe that they’re just trying to help. However, most of the time they’re also trying to notify the receiver of their honesty that “You can’t be mad at me.” If they’re “just being honest” or “telling it like it is,” then there’s no reason to get upset, and if you do get angry, then you’re just being overly sensitive. This, of course, is a completely unreasonable and unfair expectation. Even assuming this person isn’t just using “honesty” as an excuse to be needlessly cruel and that there’s some important reason for their “hard truth telling,” they have no right to expect that the recipient of their cruel kindness not become angry or upset.
In a way, I see this phenomenon playing out writ large in the same-sex marriage vs. religious conviction debate. I’ve often noticed that conservative Christians can become quite flabbergasted when the LGBTQ+ community responds with anger and frustration any time their anti-same-sex marriage position comes up. After all, they’re just expressing their beliefs. However, while it’s almost certainly true these Christians are communicating their honest convictions on the issue, this doesn’t grant them any sort of immunity from an angry response.
I think the best way to really explain what I mean is through an example. Let’s use the refusal-to-bake-a-cake scenario playing out in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, but flip the script. Instead of a Christian, let’s say the baker is an atheist. And not only does this baker not believe in God, but he also believes that, given its history of promoting war, persecution, slavery, misogyny, and the like, Christianity is a uniquely harmful religion, both to society as a whole and to its adherents. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t like Christians. He does, generally, like them as people, and is actually quite concerned for them, trapped as they are in such a damaging faith. It would be more accurate to say that he hates the Christianity but loves the Christian.
Now imagine the members of Hope Christian Church are preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the church, and the anniversary celebration committee goes to this baker to get a cake for the big event. But when they explain why they need the cake, he calmly replies, “Sorry, but I don’t make cakes for Christian events.” He’d happily make any of them cakes for birthdays or wedding anniversaries, but providing a cake for a Christian event would send a message that he supports Christianity. Given his belief that Christianity is not only false, but also an abusive and corrupting religion, it would violate his convictions to create such a message.
I suppose it’s possible that the church committee’s response would be to calmly accept his refusal, saying something like, “While we disagree, we totally understand that you truly believe Christianity is horrible, and we’ll respect your belief and go somewhere else for our cake.” But I think it’s more likely that the committee and the church would lose. their. shit. Maybe they’d leave the bakery peacefully enough, but afterwards… well… there’s going to be some consequences. Setting aside the whole nondiscrimination issue, at the very least, the baker’s refusal would be communicated to church members (the word “persecution” would almost certainly be used), and they’d be encouraged to go elsewhere for their pastry needs. And it wouldn’t be surprising if they mentioned the incident to other Christian churches in the area, encouraging them to boycott as well.
To tell the truth, I wouldn’t blame any church for responding in this way. Religious beliefs and convictions are often a core component of identity. And church serves as a community for many who are actively involved in a congregation. Why would anyone want to patronize a bakery run by someone who is so repulsed by a key part of their identity, so disgusted by the basis of their community, that this individual refuses to provide baked goods for any event associated with their religion? They wouldn’t. And not only do they have a right to avoid the bakery, they have a right to tell others why.
Flipping back to the situation in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, and again setting aside the legality of the discrimination, it shouldn’t be at all surprising, or considered an overreaction, that the gay couple asking for the wedding cake was offended when the baker refused, just like it wouldn’t be at all surprising for Christians to be offended at a baker who refuses to bake for Christian functions. I get that the baker, and so many other like-minded Christians, are “expressing their beliefs,” and I understand that conservative Christians don’t typically intend for this message to be a personal attack – that they’re not “trying to be mean.” But this isn’t some inconsequential discussion of opinions on whether Love Actually is a good movie or not (it is). This is about the gay couple’s relationship, their family. Of course, they’re going to be upset. And it certainly would be understandable if the couple and the rest of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies avoided patronizing the bakery in the future.
When I’m told my marriage is an abomination, or at best “not within God’s plan,” it’s hard not to be at least a little offended. I’m fairly certain that almost any conservative Christian couple would be pretty pissed if someone told them they didn’t like their marriage, even if they softened it with “but I like you both individually just fine.” And can you imagine the reaction if someone told them that they shouldn’t be parents to their kids??!! Yet this is what we in the LGBTQ+ community hear every time conservative Christians “express their opinions” on our identity, and we’re expected not to overreact or get too upset because, you know, they’re just saying what they believe.
Still, we live in a society that holds a wide range of beliefs and creeds, so we become accustomed to hearing unflattering opinions and thoughts on our families and identities, and we accept that this a part of living in a tolerant society. But then we’re also asked to accept that living in a tolerant society means that sometimes people can refuse to provide us services and goods, if their beliefs require it. And even this could be understandable, though we might not necessarily agree to it, if the refusal to provide services was consistently employed. But Christians have applied this “I can’t provide services for events and circumstances that violate my beliefs” conviction rather unevenly. For instance, nondiscrimination laws for religion have been around for a long time. And isn’t participating in idolatry be just as bad as participating in a same-sex marriage? So then why haven’t we heard about Christians objecting to making cakes for Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish events? Heck, a lot of conservative Christians don’t consider Mormons, and for some even Catholics, to be Christian religions. Why do they get cakes?
If baking a cake for a same-sex wedding is tantamount to showing support for same-sex marriage, then wouldn’t baking a cake for a Hindu wedding be showing support for a “false religion?” What about issuing a building permit for a Hindu temple or even a Mormon temple? It seems some people even believe issuing a marriage license to a same-sex couple is against Christian beliefs; if so, shouldn’t the same hold for issuing an occupancy permit for a building dedicated to the worship of false gods? Or what about selling the building materials to build these false churches? Shouldn’t that be out of the question too? Why haven’t Christians spent the past several decades taking a stand against nondiscrimination laws for religion, with claims that these laws violate their freedom of speech by forcing them to convey a message that they support these false religions?
This focus on LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination laws, when religion nondiscrimination laws present many of the same sorts of issues and yet have seemingly not been problematic, implies a certain animus against the LGBTQ+ community (versus other communities that also have “unchristian” beliefs) on the part of those making these religious freedom claims. This singling out of the LGBTQ+ community regarding religious exceptions to nondiscrimination laws makes it quite difficult for us to be sympathetic to all this clamoring for the right to “practice our beliefs.”
All of this is really just to say that I’m not so on board with the whole “religious exception to nondiscrimination laws” idea. Yet, I do think that there exists a category of artistic services that perhaps might need to be treated differently than other goods and services when it comes to the intersection of freedom of speech and nondiscrimination laws, even if it means some discrimination might have to be tolerated. I’m speaking of those services that actually do require the creation of some sort of work of art, such as photos, paintings, murals, sculptures, and the like. I’m not that convinced by the argument that would draw a bright line between selling art that the artist chooses to create and selling artistic services for the creation of art at others’ behest. I’m not certain that such a line can even be drawn. What about an artist that has in the past offered their services for hire, but now only creates their own art? Or an artist that only occasionally takes a commission? Can they turn down requests to create art that conflicts with their personal beliefs? When does an artist cross the line into being “for hire?”
In addition, I think certain artistic services are of a nature that the art produced represents an extension of the artist, even when produced for someone else. And I’m uncomfortable with forcing artists to make art that conveys a message they don’t want to convey, even if they’re making art as a service for others. To once again switch up the Masterpiece Cakeshop scenario, imagine that a lesbian photographer (providing services to the general public) with a wife and kids is asked by a local Catholic parish to take photos of the Pope, who happens to be coming to town. This photographer finds the Catholic Church’s views both on women and the LGBTQ+ community to be abhorrent. She’d rather not create artful photos of a man who leads a church that teaches that her family is a sin. And to make matters worse, the Pope is coming for a rally in support of “traditional marriage.” Though the church is only asking her to take photos of the Pope, and not the rest of the rally, the photos she takes will be hung in a display dedicated to promoting marriage between one man and one woman.
In the name of religion nondiscrimination, should she be forced to have her art connected to a message that demeans her and her family? Contrast with the gay contractor who is hired to paint the wall on which the photos are hung. Sure, he’s probably grossed out knowing what the wall will be used for, but there’s nothing about a literal blank wall that in any meaningful way connects him to the message to be displayed on it. If the paint job is well done, people may look at the wall and think, “this contractor does good work,” but they’d have no reason to assume that his doing a good job had anything to do with his support for the church or its views on the LGBTQ+ community. On the other hand, if people find the photos of the Pope to be compelling, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to associate the artistry of the photos with the photographer’s fondness for the subject.
I realize that this situation is, in many ways, very different from the scenario where a Christian wedding photographer refuses to shoot a same-sex wedding. But from a legal perspective, the circumstances are pretty much the same. If an artist’s personal beliefs don’t trump nondiscrimination laws, then, just like the Christian must attend the same-sex wedding and photograph the loving couple, the lesbian must attend the “anti gay marriage” rally and take photos of the Pope. And I’m not sure this is the right answer in either situation.
While I may not be certain where I stand on forcing photographers to take photos, I am sure that making cakes does not rise to the level of “artistic speech” that qualifies for freedom of speech protection. And I’m also sure that the more people try to claim religious exemptions from nondiscrimination laws, whether they’re successful or not, the more divided our already extremely polarized society will become. It’s absurd to expect that those being discriminated against will just calmly accept a vendor’s refusal to sell them certain goods and services, no matter that the refusal is based on strongly held religious beliefs. And even if legal measures aren’t taken, it’s reasonable to expect that victims will at least boycott such establishments (and who can blame them?). So I guess my parting words in this, the last post in my great trilogy on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, is a plea for those who might think their religion requires them to discriminate to seriously consider whether their faith really demands this, or whether they might just be trying to score a point in the culture wars. Lately, we as a society have had a lot to deal with, and it’d be nice not to have even just one less thing to be upset about.